A rancher discovers just how many times a man's luck can hold out in this thrilling novel in the bestselling Trail Drive Series
After struggling for years to work a raw-patch ranch in the arid flatlands of Texas, young Mitchell Newland learns that his herd of scrubby range cattle will fetch ten times their local price if they're driven to Montana.
He strikes a one-sided deal with the devil, neighboring rancher Corliss Bilks, to back his play with cattle, men, and horses. The trail brims with hellish hardship: prairie fire, stampede, flooded rivers, hailstorms, rattlers, sickness, long, broiling days and frigid nights.
Halfway to Montana, range pirates and a rogue Apache war party close in. Mitch and the boys fight, grim and helpless, watching as their herd is driven westward in a cloud of dust and cackling laughter.
Cut down to two bloodied men, Mitch collapses, far too late, and admits the old man has won the bet. But salvation in the form of a Basque sheepherder revives Mitch and his pal, Drover Joe, and Mitch realizes he isn't done. Not by a long shot. And now he has nothing to lose.
Release date: April 27, 2021
Print pages: 320
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Ralph Compton the Too-Late Trail
Matthew P. Mayo
The bulge-eyed Texas longhorn snorted, her muscled red shoulders bunching and quivering in counterpoint to her skittering eyes and heaving, lathered rib cage. Flecks of white foam dripped from her trembling mouth. But it was the beast's foot-and-a-half-long mismatched horns that Mitchell Newland kept an eye on. She jerked her head and offered him a jaunty wag.
"If I wanted to cause you grief, missy, I'd have dosed you with a lead pill long ago. Maybe I should have at that, but your mama was ol' Broody Ethel, and Pa would never have forgiven me if I laid low one of her bloodline."
Somehow that got through to her, and the belligerent beast eased her post-legged stance and swung her head back toward the clot of scrub brush behind her.
Past her shoulder, Mitch caught a glimpse of what he had expected to see-a tiny red-and-white mottled face with drooped ears peering around the spiny branches. "Good mama."
The young rancher eased his black gelding, Champ, three, then four cautious steps backward, but then the horse balked. "Let's give her space. She's doing what we'd want her to, after all, was a coyote to come along intent on molesting her calf."
If Champ understood or cared about what Mitch was saying, he didn't let on, and he didn't budge another step. Mitch dug harder with his heels. The horse offered a low snort, then gave in and they eased back, sidestepping until they were at a distance safe enough should the ornery young mother change her mind.
"My word," said Mitch, rubbing his sweat-stained fawn hat back and forth on his head. "Was a few minutes there I thought maybe we were going to have to duke it out. And you"-he patted the horse's neck-"you big lummox, all but let me down back there. What's gotten into the critters on the Twin N spread this morning?"
Mitch half-smiled and gave a look around, as if someone on the scrub-and-sand plain might catch him nattering away. Conversing with himself was a habit he'd had most of his twenty-three years, and one his pap, Jakey Newland, had encouraged.
"You go right ahead talking to you and yours. You meet better people that way, son," he'd say with a wink.
"Don't know about that, Pap," said Mitch, resuming his one-sided conversation. "But I can tell you the only other person who doesn't think it's odd is Evie. She is, as you said long ago, a keeper, and I'm pretty certain she feels that way about me, too. Only trouble is, I can't in good conscience ask her to marry up with me if this ranch limps along. We need rain, money, and more of both. In that order. But I'll settle for two out of three."
Mitch looked up at the morning's wide blue sky and sighed. His gaze fixed on the worn, flat trail before him, dust kicked up by a gust, carrying off whatever useful dirt the Twin N had left. Nope, Pap hadn't left much. Despite that, Mitch felt something deep inside for the place. A warmth different from the sun's unceasing heat driving down, day on day, week on month on year.
He shook off the tiring thoughts and drained his canteen. He was in sight of the cabin anyway. With luck, the pool at the creek would have collected more of its slow flow. It'd still be the silty color peculiar to muddied water, enough so that he told himself it was no different from creamed coffee. He'd much prefer to sip from a clear-flowing stream on his own property.
"We will again," he said as they trudged homeward. "All it takes is a little rain. Just a little rain." Mitch looked skyward once more, in case a stray thunderhead had lost its way and wandered over in his direction. Maybe it would linger above the Twin N and figure it was as good a place as any to let loose its precious cargo. But nope, nothing but blue above and brown below.
He sighed and urged Champ into a trot. "Race you home, boy," he said, smiling at the same old tired joke his father had always told to whatever horse he'd been riding. And somehow, the horse always won . . . by a nose.
Papa, you know that's not true." Evelyn Bilks narrowed her eyes at her father, the single most annoying man she'd ever met. Of course, that didn't mean much, living on a dusty old ranch three miles from the limp little town of Cawlins, Texas. She'd been raised by her father, or so he thought.
It was Carmelita, cook, housemaid, and unofficial ruler of the house, who could take most of the credit for keeping the young firebrand from straying too far off the straight, if not always narrow path. And of course there were the dozen ranch hands always about the place whom she regarded as little more than annoying brothers.
Still, Evie had met enough men to guess her suspicion was true-her father was infuriating. And claiming Jakey Newland had been a liar and a cheat was two falsehoods too far.
"I knew Jakey about as well as I know Mitch, and neither of them has ever lied to me, nor cheated anybody I've ever heard of. Those claims of yours will be the first."
Corliss Bilks jammed the wad of ham and egg into his mouth and dropped the fork with a clatter to the china plate. Both Evie and Carmelita looked up, unimpressed with his tired display of annoyance.
"I about have had enough of you correcting me in my own house, young miss. And in front of the help, to boot!"
Evie suppressed a smile, as did Carmelita. To call the older woman "help" was like calling their nine-year-old bluetick hound, Golly, a feisty pup. The dog spent all his time asleep and farting on the ranch house's long, low porch. His only worth was as a conversation deterrent.
Evie hated it when her father talked with his mouth full of food, something he'd always done. She long ago gave up trying to change his ways where manners were concerned.
"Your mother never could, so leave off it," he'd say around a mouthful of steak and beans.
She shoved away from the table and threw her balled napkin on her plate.
"You ain't eat yet!" Corliss looked as though it was a high crime to skip a meal, an offense he'd not committed in many a year.
"I have lost my appetite." She turned to walk out.
"Where you going?"
"Yeah, to that cursed Newland spread. I have half a mind to forbid you from ever seeing him again."
Evie paused in the dining room's doorway. "You do and you'll never see me again, Papa." She strode down the long, cool hallway, her riding boots snapping hard on the polished planking.
Bilks shook his head. "Worse than her mother, she is. Girl's going to cause me grievous harm one of these days." He ladled another serving of beans onto his plate.
As Carmelita cleared away Evie's setting, she muttered, "Evie is right and you know it."
"What was that?" said Corliss through his beans.
The cook sighed. "I said Evie is right."
"You, too, huh?" He gulped coffee, then wiped his mouth. "Gettin' so a man can't speak his mind in his own home else a passel of women descends screeching out of the skies like . . ."
"Eagles?" she said, not hiding her smirk as she walked out.
"No!" He shoved away from the table. To her back, he said, "Like vultures! That's what I was going to say!"
To the empty room he sighed. "One of these days I will have to do something about young Newland and Evie. I do not like where it's all leading. Not a little bit at all."
T. C. Trundleson paused in sweeping the boardwalk in front of his mercantile and leaned on the broom handle. He dragged a sleeve across his forehead and sighed long and low. It was fixing to be another griddle-hot Texas day, like all the rest, and sometimes he wasn't so certain it was where he wanted to be.
He'd had his pick of places to settle himself after the war, but then he'd up and met Mabel, and that, as they say, had been that. Not that he minded all that much. But his thoughts did sometimes cat-foot away from him, leading down trails that often involved greener grass and women whose faces weren't so pinched. . . .
"T. C. Trundleson!"
"What is it you find so fascinating that you have to spend more of your time every single morning of the year sweeping off the storefront porch?"
T.C. groaned. Mabel had a way of sneaking up on a fellow that set his teeth together hard. "Oh, being thorough, my little bluebonnet." The words didn't sound as sincere as they ought, but he didn't care. Then there she was, peering over his shoulder, then past him down the dusty street.
T.C. squinted. "Looks to me like Mitchell Newland."
He sighed again. He wanted to ask her what other Mitchell Newland did she know of. Instead, he said, "Yes, dear, that's the one."
A sound as if she'd spat-a coarse habit in which Mabel would never indulge-bubbled up out of her throat, and she turned and made for the door. "Turning out like his father."
"Oh, I don't know about that. Mitch, he's a good boy. Never asks for more than he can pay for, and he has good manners. Come to think on it, so did Jakey. He let his credit build a little too much, is all."
T.C. turned to see how she'd taken his retort, but she'd gone back inside. T.C. shook his head and lingered with the broom a while longer.
"Women are something else, ain't they, T.C.?"
The shopkeeper turned to see old Bucky Folsom holding down his usual end of the split-log bench off to the side of the display window. A genuine skirmish-fighting hero was Bucky, though you'd never know it from looking at him.
He was half the height of most men, and when he stood, you could see why. He was bent right over like a question mark, as if he carried a load of stones swinging from his shoulders, tugging him forward and looking as if he might topple any moment. The other thing you noticed about Bucky was his beard.
It was a formidable, fluffed, gray presence made even more impressive by his stooped stature. In the midst of the mass of hair that wreathed his wrinkled face and flowed past his knees, Bucky's long, pointed nose dripped, anytime of year, anytime of day. He was forever dabbing it with an old blue kerchief.
"How's that, Bucky? Didn't see you there. Good morning."
"Morning, T.C. Women, I said."
T.C. nodded. They'd had the conversation before, and would again, no doubt. Then Mitchell Newland rode up and spared him the experience.
"Morning, Mr. Trundleson. Morning, Mr. Folsom." Mitch swung down out of the saddle and looped the reins over the rail. He stepped up onto the shade porch and lifted off his hat, and smoothed back his thick black hair.
Both older men nodded and replied in kind, but it was the young man's hair they were struck by, the same as always whenever Newland's infrequent town visits occurred. T.C. and Bucky were each as bereft of hair on top as a kneecap. That darn kid was tall, too, what the ladies all called "easy to look at."
Most irksome of all, though, was that the kid had no idea womenfolk found him appealing. Plus, he was so blamed nice, genuinely so, not like some of the smarmy youngsters who were forever grubbing around for something, then weaseling off to talk of you behind your back.
"Haven't seen you in a spell, Mitch. Keeping okay by yourself at the ranch?"
"Oh, yes, sir, Mr. Trundleson. You know, one foot at a time, one beef at a time." Same answer as always. The youth smiled, but they knew he was making light of a situation no one in town envied.
His father, Jakey, a good kid himself way back, had come home from the sea a changed fellow, found a hole in his life where his pretty wife, Irma, had been. She'd died of the influenza while he was away on his last trip. He also returned to find his young son had been taken in by a kind but odd German couple who lit out for points west as soon as they turned Mitchell over to his father.
But Jakey had no heart for ranching, no heart for much after Irma died, other than drinking whiskey and not paying his debts, which he built up all over town. He did love his boy with an obvious devotion that fell short of staying sober. Eventually, though, the drink wore him down to a nub.
Jakey died of a whiskey-fueled accident when Mitch was fifteen, leaving a confused kid alone, up to his shins in debt on a hardscrabble ranch, to tend a handful of rangy, hide-on-bone cattle.
To everyone's surprise, young Mitchell shunned all offers of help. Most perplexing of all, though, he also rejected repeated-and not all that generous-offers from Corliss Bilks to purchase the meager four-hundred-acre Twin N spread.
The kid would have none of it. On his infrequent visits to town, he'd let slip now and again that he was determined to make the ranch a going concern, to do Jakey proud. Everyone tried to talk sense into the youngster, but he was as bullheaded about keeping that ranch as his pa had been about drinking away every day of his life.
Not only did he manage to hold on to the ranch, but the boy paid off his father's debts. Every last one. It took him six years, but he got there. Then he set to work buying cattle and building up a herd. Most folks who knew about such things knew the kid's critters were not much to look at, scrubby and balky and wild. But of late he had been running them with a half-breed Hereford bull, with an eye toward raising fatter, less ornery stock. The plan looked to be working, slow as an old man in a blizzard, but it was working.
Mitch Newland was also as determined to wed young Evelyn Bilks, and she him; a genuine match, everyone agreed. Everyone but her father, Corliss, the wealthiest rancher in the region. He wouldn't even talk of the matter whenever he clacked into town in his barouche, which was most every day, for a card game at Underhill's Tavern.
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